January 23, 2017

Head Girl. High achiever. Destined for Oxford.

These were all labels that were attached to my student identity by my (highly academic, all-girls) school in the autumn of 2015.

What the school didn't know? That I was experiencing extreme depression and anxiety.

After years of experiencing recurrent depressive episodes and relentless anxiety, I had internalised the nuggets of stigmatising 'advice' and 'encouragement' I had been fed over the years, such as: 'It's only hormones!' 'What do you have to be sad about, you're clever?' and 'You'll grow out of it.'

By the time I was 17, then, I had become a highly introverted, ashamed and mute sufferer of mental health problems. This did nothing to complement my role as Head Girl, as I had become obsessed with fulfilling my conception of the strong, inspiring female role model that the younger students would idolise, in which 'mentally ill' had no room in its formula. I was extremely reluctant to talk about, let alone seek help, for what I was experiencing, believing that if I accepted that I had a problem I was weak and, essentially, worthless.

The Meaningful Conversation Takes Place

My form tutor at school could see that something deep was troubling me, and repeatedly asked if I was okay, to which I would employ a series of rehearsed excuses such as 'I'm just tired!' or 'just feeling a little stressed' so that I wouldn't have to accept or reveal what I was experiencing and how I was feeling.

(The fact that people have to make up excuses for their mental health due to shame, embarrassment or fear is yet another indicator of the stigma surrounding mental illness.)

My form tutor, after detecting that I wasn't well, was the first person to tell me that having a mental illness doesn't make you a failure. She told me that if anything, I was a more realistic role model to the girls junior to me at school through being human, and that's what our struggles do - they make us human. This was the first time in years that a) I had been spoken to directly about my poor mental health and, most importantly, b) that I shouldn't be ashamed or feel any less of a person for it.

It was my form tutor's words of strength and caring words of encouragement that gave me a voice, both to speak up about my problems and become a mouthpiece for challenging stigma for others. If it wasn't for this conversation, I would never have started the road to recovery and be where I am now: in a place of unashamed honesty. If it wasn't for this conversation, I would not have pursued my passions of campaigning to reduce stigma.

Recovery is a very lengthy, continuous process, but without this conversation I would not have taken the first step towards a great future. Through listening and caring, and speaking kind and informed words, you have the power to give somebody their worth back and allow them to live the life that they deserve, free from the burden of a self-stigmatising view.

You don't have to be an expert to talk about mental health - you just have to care.

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